RCG 2012 Season Preview: Wade Davis

Things are complicated in the Rays rotation picture right now. The Rays have four guaranteed starters in James Shields, David Price, Jeremy Hellickson, and Matt Moore, but then they have three other starters who deserve a big league rotation spot in Wade Davis, Jeff Niemann, and Alex Cobb. That’s seven starters. It doesn’t make any sense to even have six because the Rays would be taking starts away from their top four starters to give them to numbers five and six. A trade has to happen at some point. But now Rays pitchers and catchers report in exactly one week. We don’t know how things are going to happen. In the next couple of days we’re going to see what we can predict for Davis, Niemann, and Cobb if they’re in the Rays’ starting rotation in 2012, and attempt to figure out what the Rays should do as the season rapidly approaches.

In 2011, Wade Davis, who turned 26 this past September, showed some nice durability but little of anything else. He made 29 starts and threw 184 innings, an average of about 6.1 innings per start. However, he went 11-0 with a 4.45 ERA, just 105 strikeouts (5.1 K/9), 63 walks (3.1 BB/9), and 23 homers allowed (1.1 HR/9). His FIP actually was worse than his ERA at 4.67 and his SIERA was even scarier at 4.82 as just 36.3% of balls put into play against Davis were groundballs compared to the 43.9% league average. Davis’ performance was not exactly something for him to be proud of this past season. Can we expect a rebound?

Let’s look at Davis’ pitches using the Pitch F/X data from Brooks Baseball as displayed in one of my Pitch F/X graphs to see if we can answer that question.

(For an explanation of this type of graph, please see here.)

Looking at this graph along with the key, there’s something very alarming: Davis threw his fastball 56% of the time, yet it was a bad pitch. Davis’ fastball registered in the low-90′s, but it had very little movement, moving just slightly down and away from a right-handed batter. Effectively, it was straight and hittable. Batters were able to get on top of it and hit it hard, resulting in both Davis’ bad groundball rate and homer rate. But the good news is that we otherwise saw some quality pitches from Davis. According to Brooks, Davis’ fastball yielded a crazy 89% more flyballs than groundballs. But his other four pitches forced hitters to hit 2.3 times as many groundballs as flyballs. Davis showed two dynamic pitches in his curveball and slider. Davis’ best pitch on the season was probably his slider, which generated swings and misses 10.6% of the time compared to the 6.1% mark of Davis’ other pitches. However, hitters could sit on the pitch knowing they could handle Davis’ fastball, and in addition, Davis sometimes had trouble locating it. Opposing batters never really figured out Davis’ curveball all season, taking it as a strike more than any of Davis’ other pitches, but it moved so well that Davis had trouble hitting spots with it. It did generate the second highest rates of swings and misses of any of Davis’ pitches, but it was far behind his slider at just 6.7% of his pitches.

Davis’ sinker was a pitch he never really established all season and once again had trouble locating, throwing it for a strike less than any of his pitches other than his changeup, but it did its job, forcing nearly 2.5 times as many groundballs as flyballs. It accomplished those because of the best combination of velocity and movement of any of Davis’ pitches. Davis stated at the beginning of 2011 that he was going to take something off his fastball to try to add more movement to it, and although he recanted after April, the sinker was a nice pitch for him when he mixed it in all season, and if he could locate it more consistently it could be a pitch he could build off of.

Davis’ changeup looks great on the graph, but it had just a 6.7 MPH difference with his fastball and just 4.8 MPH with his sinker, and Davis simply could not throw the pitch for a strike, missing the zone 62.3% of the times he threw it. It showed nice movement, but Davis needs to work on both taking something off of it and locating it.

But despite showing potential with the rest of his arsenal, can Davis survive without an effective fastball? Davis’ fastball wasn’t an awful pitch especially because Davis was able to locate it well, throwing it for a strike more than two-thirds of the time, and he got swings and misses on it 6.31% of the time. But it was not nearly good enough of a pitch for Davis to rely upon as much as he did, and it wasn’t good enough to make his other pitches effective enough. Looking at Davis’ pitch type values from Fangraphs, his fastball actually came in at 2.8 runs above average, but every other one of his pitches was awful. (It’s worth noting that the 2.8 mark factored in Davis’ sinker.) Despite its nice movement, Davis’ curveball was his worst pitch at 8.1 runs below average because Davis couldn’t establish his fastball enough to make it effective. With a better fastball, Davis could have had a much better season. And luckily there is reason to be optimistic about Davis’ fastball in 2012. Here’s a graph of Davis’ fastball from the past three seasons.

Anticipating your question, here’s what this graph tells us: Davis’ fastball was an effective pitch both last year and in his 36.1 inning big league stint in 2009 with basically the same movement. The only real difference was velocity. And it’s not that Davis lost his velocity. He was deliberately trying to pitch with less velocity and more movement. He was able to dial his fastball up to 94 MPH when he appeared in ALDS Game 1. That was a relief appearance, but it’s not like he had completely shifted gears as a pitcher for that one appearance. Davis just needs to make a distinction between his fastball and sinker. If he can make his fastball a 93 MPH pitch he builds off of and his sinker a secondary pitch he uses to force groundballs, he’ll be a much more successful pitcher. The adjustment was already underway as the season progressed as Davis threw his fastball harder and harder and expect the pitch to be harder for the duration of 2012.

Davis did not perform well in 2011, but he showed a nice arsenal of pitches that he will build on in 2012. I think that will be enough for him to turn in his best season in the major leagues. I would predict Davis to go over 200 innings for the first time if handed a spot in the Rays’ five-man rotation and expect him to go 12-9 with 159 strikeouts (7.0 K/9), 60 walks (2.9 BB/9), and 18 homers allowed (0.8 HR/9) in 32 starts and 205 innings pitched. Factoring in Davis’ 0.3 HBP/9 ratio, that would amount to a 3.86 FIP and because of the Rays defense, let’s say an ERA around 3.65. But this prediction has some qualifications. First of all, Davis has to continue to stay healthy if he’s going to throw over 200 innings. Secondly, he has to get consistent velocity of 93 MPH on his fastball and mix in his sinker more often. If he can do that, he’ll force a groundball percentage over 40% for the first time in his career at the bare minimum, and he’ll strike out more batters, walk less, and allow fewer home runs because a good fastball would make his breaking pitches and even his changeup much more effective. Wade Davis isn’t a great pitcher, but he has the ability to be a nice pitcher at the back of a big league rotation, especially with the Rays defense. Our prediction would make Davis arguably the best fifth starter in baseball. The Rays keeping Wade Davis as their 5th starter would seem to be a good idea.

Wade Davis’ trade value is at its nadir right now. It makes no sense for the Rays to trade him unless some team offers them a very favorable deal because he seems primed for a turnaround in 2012 and he’s signed to team-friendly contract for the next three years with options after that. I fully expect Wade Davis to be the Rays 5th starter in 2012 and turn in his best season in the big leagues.

Topics: Pitch F/X, Wade Davis

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